What do you see when you look at this picture? What would you have thought if you had come upon a mass of seaweed and jelly fish, having dressed in a bathing suit for a morning plunge into the ocean while on vacation?
Both my yoga teacher John Friend and my meditation and philosophy teacher Paul Muller-Ortega teach that we want to respond in the highest, to seek always to see the good and to respond from that seeing.
I found myself thinking about this morning when I saw dozens of jelly fish on the shore and contemplating a conversation I had yesterday about the topic with a fellow student.
For some, the t-shirt adage “it’s all good” may really ring true. Most every day is naturally bubbly and bright and difficulties or a need to shift or change to find better alignment is not of much importance. I am not naturally effervescent with bliss, though I find a deep and abiding and growing joy in life that comes from a combination of discrimination (viveka) and appreciation for the wonder and complexity of life.
Some may just not notice the jelly fish and just see the sun glinting on the waves, plunging in to swim with delight, not caring much that it resulted in itching or stinging from the jelly fish. The itching and stinging are just minor irritations that wouldn’t change the joy of the day. That’s a great way to live, but not all of us are by nature that care free.
For those of us who see the jelly fish and know that swimming with them can cause potentially significant discomfort, we have two choices: we can get all bummed out that a care free swim in the ocean is not going to happen. That is not responding in the highest. We can also look at what beautiful and amazing creatures are jelly fish, look down at our feet as well as up at the ocean and the sky so that we don’t step on any (walk with discrimination), and then choose to swim in the pool.
Responding in the highest and looking for the good is not the same as being blind to pain and difficulties. It is how we choose to react and our align ourselves within a world that presents both opportunities for delight and for challenge and pain. Responding in the highest is not being oblivious to pain, but rather, choosing not to suffer or cling to disappointment in the face of inevitable pain or difficulty.
When I walked out of the back of the hotel through the pool area just after day break, one of the pool side assistants was out getting things ready for the guests. “Windy,” he said, as I was wrapping and knotting my meditation shawl around my neck into the face of a strong breeze coming from offshore. “But look,” I replied, pointing to the sun rising over the ocean, “it’s so beautiful!”
“I see it every morning,” he answered, partly with a shrug of weariness and partly with a grin of delight. I guessed he was in his mid 50s–hard for me to tell, his skin was so leathery from the sun. Probably an old stoner surfer was my thought, and the shrug of resignation was for the fact that taking care of the lounge chairs and umbrellas for endless legions of tourists was what he needed to do to eat and still be with his dearest love–the sea and the sun. The smile was for the sun and the sea itself and to be able to share their beauty once again with someone who is seeing them with fresh delight.
During the course this week of study, we spent time discussing the Shiva Sutras. The second sutra–jnanam bandahah–literally means “knowledge is bondage.”
“Why do we automatically assume bondage is a negative?” John asked us at one point. Any time we make a choice, we are to some extent binding ourselves because we are, by making a choice and being limited by space and time as we are in this human form, forgoing other possibilities.
The Sutras also say that knowledge is freedom. Though the sanskrit words are different for the knowledge that binds (limited knowledge) and knowledge that leads us to freedom (highest knowledge or knowledge of the divine), using logic equations, one could say that if knowledge is bondage and knowledge is freedom, then at some level, bondage, too, is freedom.
If the pool side attendant regards himself as being utterly beaten down by his job, feels stuck with drudgery because he had nothing else he could do to survive, and then forgets about the beauty surrounding him, that would be an example of knowledge constricting or limiting us, putting us into bondage that takes us away from spirit.
If, on the other hand, he looks at the ocean each morning with joy in his heart and recognizes that he chose his job to be able to be with the ocean and sun every day, that would be knowing that bondage can actually free us (in our limited form) to dwell in and from the heart.
What the tantric yoga and meditation practices that come out of such teachings as the Shiva Sutras are designed to do, is to help us find the freedom in our limitations, to make choices in our associations and actions — our bindings — that lead us to love and wonder rather than disappointment and fear.
What do you choose?
The first day of the advanced intensive this week, John Friend invited us to write in our journals about what we wanted to get out of the three days from both an energetic perspective and from the perspective of a particular asana that has challenged us. This was not long into the first session of the first day, but it was after he spent some time speaking about what he believes it takes to be a good student–of yoga and of life. Though he did not specifically relate the qualities to the Anusara principles or the mahabhutas (elements), based on what I have heard him teach before about studentship, which is a significant aspect of a committed yoga practice, the qualities of studentship he outlined are parallel to the principles of alignment.
The first quality of studentship, he explained, is having a simultaneous sense of wonder and of humbleness (openness to the teaching and the teacher). This is about being spacious (akasha) and an application of the first and highest principle–opening to grace.
The second is steadiness, which includes showing up, paying attention, being consistent, being diligent. This is being like the earth, being muscular and strong (muscular energy) in how one studies.
The student also needs to be accommodating, to be able to be fluid (like water), to go with the flow of the teacher, the studies, and the class as a whole. This is similar to how the expanding action of inner spiral helps us make more space to grow in a pose.
Third, the student should always do his or her best, to be on fire to learn and grow. Doing one’s best in this way is like the action of tucking the tail bone to engage fully outer (or contracting) spiral to draw into the inner power to shine.
Finally, just as air reaches out in all directions and the Anusara yogi, in asana practice, uses organic energy to extend outward, a good student makes offering of all he or she is learning, to make studying an act of loving service (seva).
When John asked us to take out our journals this week, I took mine out and wrote on what he asked. As I did so, I found myself remembering the first time he asked me to write in my journal, which was at an Inner Harmony retreat in 2003, when I was in the middle of my Anusara teacher training. I have been keeping a journal steadily since I was 11, and though I was on fire for studying yoga, being told what to write in my journal felt a little like an invasion of sacred and intimate personal space. I think others probably expected this; they had “yoga” notebooks with them and did not need to write in a personal journal when the received this instruction, but all I had was my regular journal.
I am still in Miami; tomorrow I will be visiting a friend and then joining with others for the Mahashivaratri celebration, or I would pull out my journal entry from the week at Inner Harmony to see what I wrote. I know that I wrote as much about why it was hard for me to be told what to write in my journal as I wrote on whatever was the topic on which I had been directed to write. I know also that was the week I really decided how important it was to study with John. Finding the balance between knowing what was my own space and truly understanding where I would best learn by following completely the teacher, was a critical part of my yoga studies. Being a good student is not always easy, but it is an evolving part of the sadhana (practice) of relationship, which is the true yoga. This is why how to be a good student initiated the week’s teachings for a group of advanced students, most of whom were teachers themselves.
This afternoon, at the end of the last session, John asked us to get out our journals (I am still using my regular journal as I am not much for taking notes and separate notebooks for yoga just get left behind mostly empty) and look at what we had written on the first day. Did we get out of the training what we had written that we wanted, he asked. For me, the answer was mostly yes, and in some profound and unexpected ways. Would I have gotten so much in that regard if I had not done what my teacher directed and thereby focused my intention for the training? I think probably not. And part of what I wanted, though I did not write it down that way, was to be yet still a better student of my teacher, the teachings, and the spirit.
When the sun first appeared over the horizon, it was obscured by a low lying bank of clouds. As the sun came up, it gave beauty even to the clouds–illuminating and beautifying that part of our vision of the light that was clouded. When the sun rose high enough, the clouds at the horizon were scarcely noticeable in the bright light of day.
My friend Dan just posted an insightful piece about the sweetly humbling (without diminishing) perspective on the single life or the whole collective human being in the context of the whole universe. It resonated with the passage I had read for group practice last Wednesday from Ramesh Menon’s rendering of the Shiva Puranas, which talks about all the units of time from a nimesha, a human moment, to the life of the highest Siva principle–an immensity of infinite time that is incomprehensible at a human consciousness level.
Last night another storm front passed us by with only a trace of rain, leaving us deeper in drought. The wind picked up, the temperature dropped, and the clouds scattered, leaving the sky scrubbed bright blue and the air fresh. Though this morning on my walk to work there was hardly a cloud in the sky, a rather menacing gray cloud hovered directly over the building where I work. Observing this odd cloud led me to ponder about how I often feel that I have my own personal cloud–everyone else has purpose in their lives and is worthy of love, but not me (this is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea).
The reality is that all of us get such feelings to a greater or lesser degree some of the time. It can be a helpful step in clearing away feelings of unworthiness to remember that it is part of the human condition. The tantric yogis say that there are three cloaks or malas (anava mala, mayiya mala, and karma mala) that result from the manifestation of diversity from the pure universal out of its own play. The sense of unworthiness we sometimes feel (anava mala) comes from forgetting that we are spirit, and anava mala– in whatever form it appears to manifest–is just because of the loneliness of not remembering our true self. When we experience or create conflict or unhappiness out of the illusion (maya) that separateness and distinction are the only state of all that is real then we are in thrall to mayiya mala. When we think we are completely in charge and responsible for everything we do and how it impacts the world, that is karma mala at work.
We practice to pierce through the clouding of our individual consciousness by the malas. By inviting ourselves to open to the luminous space of consciousness and to surrender to the very fullness of our being, we reduce the impact of the malas on how we conduct our lives. Our practice helps us to remember our worthiness so that we can be happier and freer and do our work and engage in our relationships with more love and light. It helps us remember the light in each being so we are naturally drawn to respond with more compassion and friendliness to everything on the planet. The grace of dissolving kriya mala is that when it is not obscuring our vision, we can engage fully on our path, but still accept that we are ultimately not in charge and do not know what the universe truly has in store.
A student and friend sent me a link to an article posted by the Center for Consumer Freedom alerting consumers that excessive levels of heavy metals have been found in the reusable bags being sold by some of the big box retailers and supermarket chains. The analyst reached the conclusion that consumers should be allowed to use disposable plastic or paper bags [environmental consequences ignored] so that they are not forced into the untenable position of having to use bags that are manufactured with unacceptable levels of toxic ingredients.
It is fantastic that the folks at CCF advised people of the potential hazards associated with the manufacture and use of certain types of reusable bags. What I do not follow is the absolutism of the “either or” choice presented: poisonous bags (forced on you by environmentalists) or disposable plastic or paper bags (with all the attendant hazards to the environment). Why does the bag you use have to come from the grocery store? The types of retailers identified might have seized another retail and advertising opportunity to make cheap, hazardous reusable bags in nations with cheap (i.e. inadequately paid and treated) workers in countries with lax environmental and consumer safety standards. But this is just another example of how corporations prosper at the expense of the health of the planet, as if the worth of the stock of corporations — the part that is separate from the world in which the corporation operates — in itself is the highest good (that’s a discussion for another day).
I write about this article because it seems to me to be a perfect example of how staying within paradigms, choices, and societal constructs presented can keep us in the kind of ignorance (avidya) that prevents us from being in alignment, from seeing the good, and from responding in the highest. I am sure you, as can I, can think of far too many other examples of how if we stay with the question as it is framed, can prevent us from finding a peaceful, loving, healthful solution. The choice here is not bad for the environment and your kids (or pets) reusable bags or bad for the environment disposable bags. The choice is between bad for the environment bags and reusable bags that made by you or someone you trust not to use poisonous materials.
I have been carrying my own bags on a progressively more consistent basis since I was inspired to invite people to participate in Earth Day when I was in junior high and high school in the 1970s. The photo shows some of my favorite carry bags. From left to right: (1) the day pack I bought in 1984 to carry my law school books, which were very heavy; it cost maybe $20 and it is still going strong; (2) cute organic cotton bag with “make love, not war, haight-ashbury 1968” silkscreened on it; I get complimented on it whenever I use it, especially when I turn down super cool disposable bags at fashionable stores in NYC (“no thank you; I have my own bag”); freebie canvas bag from Barney’s Coop; cannot be sure that it was made with union labor, but am pretty sure it isn’t one of those toxic bags described in the article.
Next time you are struggling with what seems like an choice between Scylla and Charybdis, invite yourself to soften, to open to the bigger picture, to open your heart and mind as wide as the widest space of meditation, and ask whether you are asking the right question.
For the first few years I was teaching, one season a year, I would have as my overall session theme the Anusara invocation (for the words written out, click on “invocation” in the menu bar above). In so doing, I invited myself and others to contemplate at the heart level the meaning of each word, of why we were making the invocation, of how the invocation might inform not only our practice, but how we bring our practice off the mat and into our daily lives. Each time I chant the invocation–and it has been hundreds of times now over the years I have been studying, practicing, and teaching Anusara yoga–I seek to invoke into my practice the deepest qualities of the heart that it represents.
Over the winter break, when I was preparing for this session, the invocation called to me. I decided it was time to make it as a specific offering again. Last week and this week, including in the restorative workshop offered at Willow Street Yoga last Saturday, I have been exploring namah shivayah from the first line. Namah–which has the same verbal origins at the English word “name”–means to bow, to honor, to name. It forms the basis of the greeting namaste–with the light in me, I bow to the light in you. Sivayah here is our siva nature. It is variously the light within, auspiciousness, spirit, divine nature, elemental goodness.
When I was practicing in preparation for teaching the week’s classes and the restorative workshop and contemplating (practicing bhavana on) namah shivayah, I thought about a question I often get when I teach restoratives: “should I be maintaining the alignment principles or should I be relaxing completely?” When I get the question phrased this way, I look the student straight in the eye and respond, “yes.” I get a quizzical look; how could the answer be “yes” to an “either or” question? The answer is “yes” because in each pose, we are seeking to embody the fullest expression of namah shivayah. Taking the time to make sure to be in alignment when setting up for a pose, moving into a pose, reaching the pinnacle of a pose, and then moving out of or dissolving a pose, is out of loving respect for your body and the energy that courses through your body. We seek to be fully in alignment in all stages of each pose, not only to minimize the likelihood of being in pain or getting or aggravating an injury and to increase the likelihood of healing any existing injuries and expanding our capacity to feel free in our bodies, but also out of a profound respect and honor for the self, the teachings, and the practice.
Sometimes people think that focusing on getting the alignment just right is fussy or rigid and the antithesis of relaxation. In the case of restoratives especially, everyone coming to the practice wants to be at peace and feel free of effort. In the hunger to get to a place of relaxation, some hurry into the pose without honoring the alignment. Oftentimes, it is the hurry to relax and the loss of attention to the details of alignment (of both the mind-body and the props) that leads to pain or discomfort in a pose that is meant to be held for a long time, as are restoratives. When a student tells me that they are in pain in a particular posture, I invite the student to back off, set up the pose again, and far more often than not, all discomfort disappears, and the student is able to move into a blissful place. The student then experiences for herself how much the alignment enables the surrender to the exquisite opening to siva and the blissful attributes of siva (satcitananda).
One of the reasons I find restoratives to be such a powerful practice is because they require such focused attention on alignment to enable full relaxation. As such, they are a great way to understand the need for the perfect and simultaneous balance of effort (tapas) and surrender (ishvara pranadhana). So the answer is “yes;” the answer is “nama shivayah.” In everything we do, in every aspect of our practice on and off the mat, we want to be consciously in alignment. We want to use all the knowledge that has been imparted by our teachers and experienced in our own practice as a way of honoring and naming and helping to enable an unceasing, simultaneous, and full surrender to our own siva nature.
Brrr. It’s cold out there. And if it is seeming colder than usual, you are right. There have only been five winters on record with fewer days above 50F in Washington, DC. Perhaps, like me, you have noticed that you are feeling just a tad sensitive or edgy or maybe a little blue. I recognize the symptoms; in my distant past, a therapist suggested that I might have “seasonal affective disorder.” My prescription for myself when winter has me feeling down? Do more yoga, keeping a focused intention on cultivating the light of inner awareness.
The form of meditation I practice is intended to allow the practitioner to rest in the light of inner awareness. One of the aspects of the Anusara principle of “opening to grace” for me is to open to the light in myself and others. On a more physical level, backbends will open up your heart and make room for the light; core work will warm you up by stoking the agni, the inner fire; forward bends will help you go deep inside to find your own light. There is a light-filled practice for every day of the week, every time of day, and every mood you are in.
Avoid the temptation to huddle inside, eating too many carbs and hiding away. When the sidewalks are passable, bundle up and take a long walk. When you come back inside, do a good therapeutic and restorative practice–it’s as good as hot chocolate (and no one said you couldn’t have the hot chocolate, too). Invite friends over for a potluck. Cook bean soups. Have hot cereal for breakfast and perhaps for dinner. Balance the warm food with the freshest of fresh food by growing sprouts on the kitchen counter.
Want to light up your yoga fire, sun, inner light with company? Join me and your friends and neighbors at William Penn House classes on Tuesdays at 6:30. Need a little R&R or found you have tweaked something shoveling or walking on the ice and snow? Drop ins are always welcome at the gentle and therapeutics class at Willow Street, Takoma Park, Saturdays at noon. Give yourself something to look forward to by signing up in advance for the second “Relaxing Into Optimal Alignment with Anusara Restoratives” workshop at Willow Street on Saturday, February 26th.
And plan for Spring with “Yoga for Gardeners,” the weekend of the Spring Equinox–yes, it is only weeks away. As has been my practice in previous years, my profits will go to support the Youth Garden at the National Arboretum.
Looking forward to sharing, expanding, and delighting in the light with you soon.
Peace and light,